Click on the book cover for information about the book and author, and click here for the criteria I use to decide which books to put on this list. More great-reads coming soon…
A Monster Calls is dark and simultaneously brilliant. Full of surprising twists and tales with ambiguous meanings, the book is all about a boy facing some tough truths—his mother’s illness, awkward family relationships, an ex-friend and schoolyard bullies. It’s about living and dying, about guilt and blame and forgiveness and yes, monsters. Immediately engaging, the story will take you deep into the dark of night, and even deeper into your own soul. Parts of this book are frightening, but it’s not a horror story. Sometimes the scariest thing in life is the truth.
“You fill in the holes,” writes Louis Sachar at the end of Holes, a twisted fable about smelly feet, juvenile detention, yellow-spotted lizards and onion juice. As he tells the parallel tales of Stanley Yelnats and his no-good, dirty-rotten pig-stealing great-great-grandfather, Sachar weaves the literary DNA of the town of Green Lake, concocting a story about bullies that even bullies will enjoy. While Stanley digs holes in a dried lake bed, Sachar digs beneath the reader’s skin until he exposes the funny bone and tickles away, leaving readers hopeful that maybe, just maybe, all the wrongs of this world will one day be righted. If only…if only…
What if your world were completely safe? No pain. No worries. No suffering. No choices, either, because in this world you would be protected from making bad ones. Hard to imagine, but Lois Lowry pulls it off as she pulls readers into her stark and compelling novel. The Giver is a book to read with a class or a group or at the very least with one friend so that when you’re finished, you can discuss the ending. The exquisite ending! If you don’t have a buddy to discuss it with, email me at abwestrick at gmail dot com and let me know what you think happened. I re-read this novel every other year, and each time—even though I already know what will happen—I find myself so drawn into this world that I can’t put the book down until I’ve finished it again.
Take a dying hot-air balloonist, a daring cabin boy on a luxury airship and a plucky girl passenger, and combine them with pirates, storms, and shipwreck on an island, and the result is Airborn, a marvelously engaging adventure. While the characters and their social interactions are reminiscent of the 1800’s, the airship is pure futuristic fantasy (it docks briefly at the top of the Eiffel Tower). And then there are the “cloud cats”—mysterious mythical creatures sighted on the island. Author Kenneth Oppel‘s imagination is immense, his pacing just right, and the story most compelling. And for those who prefer audio-books to hard copy, the CD version of Airborn by Full Cast Audio is a joy to listen to.
Of all the books in the Harry Potter series, my favorite is the third—The Prisoner of Azkaban. Multiple plot lines come together with fun twists and turns, leading to a surprising and satisfying ending. J. K. Rowling is a master storyteller. I love her tongue-in-cheek humor, and find her wildly imaginative creatures from hinkypunks to hippogriffs delightful. But should you start with the third book? Tough call. While each book stands alone, there are so many characters in the series that it’s probably best to begin with the first—Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. But if you’re a reluctant reader with a required book report looming, you can’t go wrong with Azkaban. You might even like it so much that you end up reading the whole series.
In the world of The Golden Compass, no one is ever alone because each person has his/her own daemon in the form of an animal or insect that hovers within reach, always comforting and advising. But when 12 year-old Lyra witnesses an Oxford scholar trying to poison her beloved uncle, overhears adults talking about a strange sort of dust, then learns of children being snatched from the streets by gobblers, she sets off to stop the baddies and discover the mystery behind the dust. Released in the U.K. as The Northern Lights, it’s a story of witches, gypsies, mercenary bears, a church hellbent on dominance, and power-driven researchers who will stop at nothing, even if it means sacrificing children to achieve their goals. The first in Philip Pullman‘s “His Dark Materials” trilogy, this book can be read at many levels—I’ve read it three times now—and I’d encourage mature middle school readers to tackle it, then re-read it years later and glean the layers of intrigue and social commentary beneath the adventure.